2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Blacks Key to Democratic Nominee

 

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Doug Moore and Jake Wagman
2/1/08 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 


Barack Obama's emergence as a top presidential contender has shattered the racial ceiling in American politics, moving the dream of having a black man in the White House into the realm of possibility.

But are black voters ready to embrace him?

Obama enjoys strong but not overwhelming support among blacks going into Tuesday's high-stakes primary in Missouri, Illinois and 22 other states.

Many black voters are supporting his Democratic rival's attempt to carve her own place in history: Madame President. And don't forget Hillary Clinton's other claim to fame: Wife of the man extolled as the "first black president."

The match-up has energized the black voting base more than any other time since the Civil Rights era, some political leaders say.

"Frankly, this race with Hillary and Barack Obama has done something that has not been done since the late 1960s," said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat who supports Clinton.

Who black voters are supporting -- and not supporting -- appears to reflect the nuanced allegiances many black voters bring to the ballot box and the efforts of both candidates to court their support.

In Missouri, where the black vote seems up for grabs, support for Clinton stems from loyalty to her husband and lingering skepticism about Obama's acceptance into the political mainstream. A recent Post-Dispatch/KMOV poll suggested that many black voters supported Clinton, or John Edwards, who dropped out of the race Wednesday, or were undecided. (But both remaining Democratic contenders fared far better than any Republican among black voters.)

The dynamics are different in Illinois, where voters catapulted Obama from state legislator to the national stage. In his home state, Obama enjoys a comfortable lead. He polled stronger than any other candidate among all voters surveyed, black and white.

Nationally, Obama had trailed Clinton among black voters, but now about 60 percent favor him, according to recent polls. Of the country's 142 million registered voters, blacks make up 11.3 percent, according to the U.S. census.

Whether it's Clinton or Obama, Democrats are poised to make history. The likely nominee will either be the first black or first woman presidential candidate from a major party.

"These two people don't fit the mold of who has been president," said Kimberly Edwards, 23, a graduate assistant at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "They represent a change in leadership that we've never had."

Edwards has noticed a stronger push this primary season to win over black voters, particularly in Missouri.

Clinton's state campaign co-chairs include prominent African-Americans such as Cleaver, who was the first black mayor of Kansas City, and the Rev. B.T. Rice, a well-known pastor in north St. Louis County. Obama has wooed black officials at City Hall, while his surrogates have hoisted his name alongside iconic figures such as Martin Luther King Jr.

"Barack is standing on the shoulders of Dr. King, on the shoulders of Malcolm X, on the shoulders of Medgar Evers and Bobby Kennedy," U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, told the congregation at the Community Church of God in Black Jack on Sunday morning.

In an interview, Clay suggested that some black leaders have fallen prey to polarizing tactics by the Clinton campaign. "Divide and conquer," he said.

At times, gender and race have overshadowed differences on important issues such as Iraq and health care. But interviews with black voters and politicians hint at a more complex equation.

"You cannot expect a blind endorsement," said state Rep. Connie L. Johnson, whose district hugs the river in far north St. Louis. "You cannot automatically assume that because we share something in common, i.e. race, then that automatically guarantees support."

Johnson, who was supporting Edwards until he dropped out, says she received plenty of grief from peers for not standing by Obama. "They were like, 'Golly, Connie, you sold out. How you going to support the white boy?'" said Johnson, who has not publicly said whom she would support with Edwards out of the race.

Obama's growing support within the Democratic establishment has led some African-Americans to question Obama's commitment to black issues, Johnson said.

"Black folks are saying, 'All of these white people are getting on board with Obama like he's the best thing since refrigeration,'" Johnson said. "If they feel so strongly, why have they never supported an African-American statewide?"

Others are taking a more pragmatic approach. Missouri state Rep. Esther Haywood, who worked as a teacher in East St. Louis, said nominating Obama will only set Democrats up for failure. "Sure, we would like to see a black elected," said Haywood, of Normandy. "But what we've got to look at is who is most electable."

That position is shared by Tiara Rogers, 25, who works as an assistant in building operations at UMSL. She said she is leaning toward Obama. "But I don't think America is ready for an African-American president," Rogers said. "The sad part is that we're paying attention to first woman and first black and not the actual issues."

Many African-Americans are torn by their fondness for the Clinton legacy and the possibility that Obama could really be the first black president.

"If he wasn't running, I'd vote for Hillary," Versita Harris, 44, a mother of three from north St. Louis County.

Like Harris, some of Missouri's senior black politicians find it hard not to be stirred by Obama's success. Even Cleaver, a Clinton supporter, confessed to some inner turmoil over Obama's candidacy.

"I don't know if the word is 'conflicted,'" Cleaver said. "I certainly feel a tinge of pride."

Quianna Pope, 20, of Normandy, said the ideal situation for her would be if Clinton and Obama shared the ticket. So who would be the vice presidential candidate?

Pope just shrugged. "I have no idea."

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